The Indians underperformed in the season’s first half but rode a strong second half onto the fringes of the American League Wild Card race late in the year. Cleveland finished with a bizarre record of 81-80, as a rained-out contest with the Tigers was never made up with both teams eliminated from postseason play. Newly promoted president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff will look to improve upon that win total in the upcoming offseason.
- Jason Kipnis, 2B: $45.5MM through 2019 (including buyout of 2020 option)
- Corey Kluber, RHP: $36.5MM through 2019 (including buyout of 2020 option)
- Yan Gomes, C: $20.95MM through 2019 (including buyout of 2020 option)
- Carlos Carrasco, RHP: $19.6625MM through 2018 (including buyout of 2019 option)
- Chris Johnson, 3B/1B: $17.5MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Michael Brantley: $15MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Carlos Santana, 1B/DH: $9.45MM through 2016 (including buyout of 2017 option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR)
- Josh Tomlin (4.151) – $3.1MM
- Bryan Shaw (4.081) – $2.8MM
- Lonnie Chisenhall (3.158) – $3.0MM
- Zach McAllister (3.077) – $1.0MM
- Cody Allen (3.076) – $3.5MM
- Nick Hagadone (3.056) – $600K
- Jeff Manship (2.130) – $700K
- Non-tender candidate: Hagadone
- Ryan Raburn, OF: $3MM club option with a $100K buyout
With a little more than $41MM committed to the 2016 payroll plus another $15MM or so in arbitration raises looming, plus 10 spots at or near the league minimum, Cleveland’s payroll presently projects to about $61MM. That’d be about $26MM south of their Opening Day mark from 2015, and while it’s not clear if they’ll be willing to spend back up to that level — the team did, after all, eat $10MM in the trade that sent Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to Atlanta — there appears to be a fair amount of room to make additions. Significant additions, however, may not be as necessary as one would think when glancing at the team’s record.
On paper, the 2015 Indians look like a club that should’ve contended for a playoff spot more credibly than they actually did. The team finished eighth in the Majors with a collective 3.68 ERA on the strength of an impressive, team-controlled rotation and a bullpen filled with quality arms. On the offensive side of the spectrum, Cleveland’s hitters combined to hit .256/.325/.401, which translates to a wRC+ of 99. (That is to say, essentially, their hitters’ collective production was one percent below the league average.)
Given those figures and he fact that the team’s pending free agents are more role players than everyday contributors, there’s reason to believe that Antonetti, Chernoff and the rest of the front office don’t need a drastic overhaul to experience better results on the field next year. A rebound from Yan Gomes and a full season of the incredible Francisco Lindor (my personal pick for AL Rookie of the Year) will go a long ways toward improving the club’s record. That said, there are still some very clear areas of need.
First and foremost is the team’s lack of production at third base. Indians third basemen combined to slash just .228/.273/.356. While players like Giovanny Urshela and Jose Ramirez graded out well defensively, neither provided much in the way of offense. Lonnie Chisenhall, long hoped to be the future at third base, now looks like more of an answer in right field due to the strong defensive contributions he turned in following the change. Chris Johnson has a good deal of experience at the hot corner but has a questionable glove and significant platoon issues, making it a stretch to use him as an everyday option there.
The free agent market offers little in terms of certainty at third base, but Cleveland could make a run at David Freese to fill the need. A slightly above-average bat and slightly below-average glove, he’s not an exciting option but could solidify the position. His age — he’ll play next season at 33 — figures to keep his price down, to some extent. Daniel Murphy could be another option, even though the longtime Mets infielder has spent far more time at second base than third base in his career.
Turning to the trade market, Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena represent potential short-term fixes. Each is signed through 2016. Trevor Plouffe’s name figures to come up as a potential trade candidate given the emergence of Miguel Sano, though it’s worth wondering if the Twins would be averse to an intra-division swap. The two sides have lined up on a pair of trades in the past six years, but those were minor deals involving Jim Thome and Carl Pavano in the late stages of each veteran’s career, whereas Plouffe is in the midst of his prime. A higher-ceiling medium-term trade candidate would be Todd Frazier, but the cost of a cross-state swap with the Reds would be significantly higher than the cost to acquire any of the previously mentioned names. While I personally feel the Reds should be open to dealing Frazier to accelerate their rebuild, there’s been no indication that such a scenario is something to which Cincinnati is open. Displaced Phillies third baseman Cody Asche could be an even longer-term option, though he’d be a buy-low pickup after a fairly unproductive 2015 season. If those struggled continued, Cleveland would be right back where it started.
The rest of the Cleveland infield is more or less set, with Lindor manning shortstop and Jason Kipnis returning to reprise his role at second base. Carlos Santana figures to see the bulk of the playing time at first base, though Antonetti and Chernoff could seek help in the first base/DH realm. Cleveland is lacking in right-handed pop, for instance, making someone like Mike Napoli or Steve Pearce a fit, at least on paper. If handedness isn’t an issue, John Jaso is an underrated candidate for clubs in need of some DH production, and Justin Morneau could be lower-cost first base/DH option. Either would require a platoon partner, however.
In the outfield, Michael Brantley will again man left field after emerging as one of baseball premier corner outfielders over the past two seasons. Right field figures to be manned primarily by Chisenhall, whose glove out there was highly impressive to Cleveland. Chisenhall posted unbelievable marks of +11 DRS and +9.3 UZR in just 354 innings in right, and while he’s not likely to maintain those rates and save somewhere in range of 35 to 40 runs next year, he’s probably earned a look in at least a platoon capacity. (As mentioned before, Johnson’s been suggested by the Cleveland media as a probable platoon partner.)
The question, then, is center field. Abraham Almonte impressed in 51 games, hitting .261/.324/.455 with sound defense, but he’s never shown that level of production in the Majors until arriving in Cleveland. Almonte hit .233/.283/.336 in 364 plate appearances between the Mariners and Padres before joining Cleveland. He does bring a career .287/.369/.437 Triple-A batting line (999 PAs) to the table.
Nevertheless, banking on that productivity translating to the Majors in 2016 is a sizable risk for a team that will aim to contend and does have some financial flexibility. Given Almonte’s unproven nature, the Indians could, at minimum, seek out a platoon partner. Though Almonte is a switch-hitter, he struggled against lefties in 2015 and has been far worse against them throughout his career. Rajai Davis would be a nice fit on the free agent market, and Justin Ruggiano could be a lower-cost option as well.
A longer-term fix would be to pursue a trade of a controllable center fielder, and one name in which Cleveland expressed interest this summer is Marcell Ozuna. The Indians’ interest in Ozuna pre-dates their acquisition of Almonte, but Ozuna’s offensive upside is more significant than that of Almonte. The 24-year-old Marlins outfielder batted .269/.317/.455 with 23 homers in 2014 but has fallen out of favor with owner Jeffrey Loria this year. Ozuna was demoted to Triple-A on the heels of a 1-for-36 slump and kept in the minors long enough to prompt accusations of service time manipulation from agent Scott Boras. While some may roll their eyes at such allegations due to the source of said complaint, it’s worth noting that Ozuna will narrowly fall shy of Super Two designation. (The question is not whether a demotion was warranted, but rather whether the length was necessary from a developmental standpoint or boiled down to financial manipulation.) Ozuna hit well in Triple-A but upon returning to the Majors likened the demotion to a jail sentence. Reports since have indicated that Loria has soured on the talented Ozuna, who is controlled through the 2019 season.
Miami would most likely ask young pitching in return for Ozuna, and Cleveland is perhaps better suited than any team in baseball to accommodate that desire. Rotation options for 2016 include Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, Cody Anderson and Trevor Bauer. Of all those names, Bauer stands out as someone who could be sent to Miami in an Ozuna trade. The former No. 3 overall pick led the AL with 79 walks this season and finished with an ugly 4.58 ERA, though he was very good through the season’s first few months before his walk rate spiraled out of control. He’s controlled through 2020 and has had more recent success, so his value would seem to be higher than Ozuna’s. As such, other pieces need to be involved (perhaps Cleveland could add prospects and push for Prado to be included in a deal as well). But, an Ozuna-for-Bauer framework would, at its core, represent a swap of two high-ceiling, controllable assets that have struggled in their current setting.
If the team does trade a starter, adding a veteran arm on a one-year deal to provide some depth would seem to be a prudent decision. Anderson was sharp in 2015, but his minuscule strikeout rate and BABIP bring in question the sustainability of that success. Tomlin, too, was impressive, maintaining his increased strikeout rate from 2014, but he hasn’t thrown more than 144 innings in a season since 2011. Gavin Floyd has expressed interest in returning and shouldn’t cost more than a few million dollars. Chris Young could also be a one-year deal candidate, and reclamation projects such as Doug Fister, Mat Latos and Bud Norris could all be looking at such contracts as well.
Left-handed depth in the bullpen will need to be an area of focus, as Nick Hagadone underwent elbow surgery that will cost him six to nine months (making him a possible non-tender). Kyle Crockett and Giovanni Soto are internal options, but Crockett had a poor 2015 between Triple-A and the Majors, and Soto has averaged more than five walks per nine innings at Triple-A in two seasons. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister will be the primary righties, and Jeff Manship’s surprisingly dominant season has earned him a look in 2016 as well.
An under-the-radar need for Cleveland is to improve its bench. In recent seasons, the since-shed albatross contracts of Swisher and Bourn not only hampered payroll but took a pair of valuable roster spots that left bench options thin. Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn seem unlikely to return, so adding some younger, versatile bench pieces would be of benefit. Jose Ramirez and his glove could have the inside track to one bench spot, and Almonte could become a fourth outfielder if a center fielder is acquired. Roberto Perez is one of the game’s better backup catchers, so that position isn’t an area of need.
For all the speculation about the ways in which Cleveland could look to improve, the fact remains that major improvement isn’t needed. A full season of Lindor will be a boon to the team’s playoff hopes, and a rotation fronted by Kluber, Carraso and Salazar should be formidable, as should the returning right-handed arms in the bullpen. Cleveland has a few notable holes, but they have the trade chips necessary to fill in the gaps. And, unlike the past two offseasons, they have some financial firepower to supplement the roster if that’s a more preferable course of action as well.